|Daniel Pearl, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh
London, Oct. 13: The British Pakistani sentenced to death for the kidnap and murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl is likely to be set free by General Pervez Musharraf’s government, it was predicted today by an investigative French author.
Bernard-Henri Levy, a French writer and philosopher, spent part of last year researching the role of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British born and educated Pakistani, in the kidnap and gruesome beheading of Pearl.
Levy, who is expected in London next week to publicise his book, Who Killed Daniel Pearl' (published by Duckworth; £20), told The Telegraph in an exclusive interview that he did not expect Sheikh to go to the gallows despite his conviction.
“I am pretty sure that after a few years he will be out of jail,” said Levy, who travelled to Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Bosnia, the US and Britain to conduct exhaustive research into Sheikh’s role in Pearl’s killing.
Levy said that those who argued that Sheikh was merely a useful tool exploited by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence were wrong. Instead, Sheikh was a fully paid member of the ISI, which would do everything in its power to protect one of its most valuable agents.
“He depended on the ISI and the ISI depended on him,” insisted Levy.
His book, which has been translated from the original French, reads like a fast-paced thriller but more chilling because the author clearly placed himself in danger while following leads in the murky world of Karachi terrorism.
Levy said he took seriously the threat uttered by Sheikh when the sentence of death was passed on him by the special anti-terrorist court in Hyderabad in July last year.
Sheikh is reported to have said: “I will see whether who wants to kill me, will kill me first, or get himself killed.… It is a decisive war between Islam and Kafirs, and everyone is individually proving on which side he is.”
Levy commented that this threat by Sheikh was not to be dismissed lightly. “My opinion is that we have to take seriously what he says.”
In London, Sheikh’s family, led by his father and his younger brother, have mounted a campaign to secure his release. Although Levy acknowledges that Sheikh was not the one who actually cut Pearl’s throat and decapitated his head and then chopped his body into 10 pieces, “I don’t accept he was a scapegoat,” the author pointed out.
“He was without doubt the mastermind of the plot, the architect of the kidnapping,” added Levy. “He was the man who set the trap into which Daniel Pearl fell.”
Sheikh was one of three Pakistani militants freed from an Indian prison in December, 1999, in exchange for 156 passengers on an Indian Airlines flight hijacked from Kathmandu to Kandahar in Afghanistan. He was said to have lured 38-year-old Pearl, who was visiting Karachi from his base in Mumbai, into a trap on January 23 last year. It is believed that Pearl, who was investigating links between al Qaida and Pakistani groups and militants, found out too much and was killed on January 31.
On February 12, a week after Sheikh had surrendered to his ISI contacts, his arrest in connection with Pearl’s disappearance was announced.
Asked why there had been a week’s delay in making the announcement, Levy replied: “So that the ISI and Omar Sheikh could cook up a story.”
Pearl’s dismembered body was recovered from a grave on July 15 last year.
In his book, Levy has no hesitation in describing Sheikh as “the brain behind the crime”.
There is a longish section on Sheikh’s operations in India where he was caught after a gun battle with police in 1994 after he had mounted a botched operation to kidnap three gullible western tourists.
Levy reaches the following conclusion: “The entire operation would not have been possible without the active support of the Pakistani embassy in Delhi.”
Since Sheikh had paid Rs 130,000 to buy a house, Levy asks: “Where did he get the money, the 130,000 rupees'”
Sheikh also acquires “a plastic bag containing two handguns” and soon after adds an AK-47 and two grenades to his arsenal. Levy’s reaction is: “Impossible, I’m told by my sources, and I think they’re right, to bring an AK-47, grenades and handguns into India without diplomatic assistance.”
In an account later given by Sheikh, he acknowledges he received training in two Afghan camps in using weapons from “Subedar Saleem and Subedar Abdul Hafeez, who are, he specifies, former members of the SSG — otherwise known as the Special Services Group, the elite unit of the ISI!”
Levy also deals with the irony that Sheikh, an “enemy of the West is a product of the West” (Sheikh was born in London, educated at Forest School, a fee paying school in Wanstead, east London, and went up to the London School of Economics).
Levy poses one of the most troubling questions in his book: “Is terrorism the bastard child of a demonic couple: Islam and Europe'”